One of the things that I loved–and I mean loved, deeply and truly, to the warmest bottoms of my love-filled toes–about staying in B&Bs when I was in Ireland was the almost obscene proliferation of Irish soda bread in the morning.
Brown, almost nutty, chewy, dense, crusty. Depending on the individual recipes (and perhaps region, I don’t know enough about it to state that for sure…yet…) some had a touch of honey, or some nuts, or fruit or oats mixed in. But whether it was straightforward, unadorned soda bread or some fancified variant thereof, I loved them all. Equally. With unabashed passion. Which is why, now that I’m slightly less afraid of making bread, I decided to try to make some at home.
And I thought I’d start out with a basic recipe and see how it goes. It’s a really, really simple recipe that doesn’t require you be a rocket surgeon or brain scientist or have a Ph.D in yeast technology to successfully make. It’s good, hearty, uncomplicated bread. If only the rest of life were this simple. The only way I tinkered with this at all: I used two cups of whole wheat flour and 1 1/2 cups of white AP flour, and I did not consider the caraway seeds optional. Oh, yeah, and because I cannot help myself why God why I had to add something extra and hit the top of the bread with a little fresh-ground pepper right before baking. But that’s it. I swear.
Anyway. Getting started.
Here’s everything you need. As in, everything.
Mix together all of your dry ingredients. Remember, caraway = not optional.
Pretty straightforward. Not too many ways to screw up a dry mix, though I’m sure I could figure something out… 😉
And then mix in the buttermilk. I ended up using a little bit more buttermilk than the recipe called for, and I think it gave me a slightly lighter end product. But I’ll get to that in a minute.
The recipe says to mix enough buttermilk to form moist clumps. So. In reading some of the user reviews, a not-uncommon complaint was that the bread, in the end, turned out too tough. The word “solid” was used, as was “brick”. Think of the scene in About A Boy where Marcus throws the loaf of bread in the water and kills a duck with it.
That? Was something I didn’t want. As this is a quick bread that you don’t allow to rise (leavening agents like baking soda and buttermilk do that for you) and the “brick” reviews were kind of stressing me out, I thought it would be better to have a slightly more moist (i.e., buttermilk-leavened) dough. Especially since I used a significant amount of whole wheat flour, which is a bit more dense than white AP flour. I just added some extra buttermilk beyond the 1 1/2 cups the recipe calls for, one small splash at a time, until I had pulled all the aforementioned “moist clumps” into one gooey unit.
Perhaps stickier than the recipe intended, but still on track.
Turn it out on your prepared work surface, knead it for a minute or two, and then put it on your baking tray. Don’t worry about shaping it until it’s on your tray, especially if you pick the “slightly more sticky” option. Just gather it up and splop it front and center on the tray. If anything, it may be a little tall; if that’s the case just press it down into shape and cut a deep X into the dough so it can vent.
Don’t be afraid, it’s not that delicate. Just hack at it.
Into the oven–preheated to 425°, of course–and forget about it. For twenty minutes. And then check on it and turn it, if it’s cooking too much on one side like my oven tends to do. Fifteen minutes after that, you should have a beautiful loaf of bread.
Toasty brown? Check! Smells fantastic? Check! Nicely risen? Check!
It’s true that if you turn it over and knock on the bottom crust, you’ll hear a vaguely hollow-ish thump. That’s a good sign. Lots of air pockets for sound to echo in.
Let it cool for a few minutes…or however long you can stand it…and then?
Slice + butter + jam = yes.
I give you the bread of my people. See it’s nice and light in the middle, not condensed? It’s maybe a little less dense than some breads, but not brickish, and totally delicious. Enjoy.